September 23, 2020
Vipul Shaha, Pune
"Lovers don't finally meet somewhere. They're in each other all along."--Rumi
The moment I think about the 'Urban Ashram' it evokes a feeling of a big-hearted, warm, loving home, a beautiful green oasis in the midst of a bustling city and a sacred community space for inner-gardening! To me, Urban Ashram truly is a sentient being -- like the Banyan Tree -- nurturing every soul in her presence.
It was in May 2009 that I first met Sheetal bhai during my Teach for India (TFI) orientation activity. While I do not remember much from that first meeting, what I do remember is that something in my heart popped out when he first mentioned the 'Urban Ashram'. I knew that I had to visit this place! As the first year of TFI Fellowship took over and I struggled to survive at physical, mental and emotional level--my soul longed for some silence and solace. A dear friend invited me for the weekly 'AwaKin' Circle that was being held at the Urban Ashram. It was a happy surprise and my good fortune that the Ashram was located at a walking distance from my apartment in Pune! I instantly jumped at the opportunity. It did not take too long for me to begin to feel at home at the Urban Ashram. One of my fondest and earliest memory is sitting in an AwaKin circle of silence in the very calm presence of Sheetal's mother.
During a very demanding and often stressful first year of my TFI Fellowship, I started to feel naturally pulled towards the Urban Ashram every Wednesday for the AwaKin Circles. In the midst of so much 'doing' and hyper-activity, the opportunity for silence and 'doing nothing' at the Ashram was my recharge for the rest of the week. During my second year of Fellowship, Khush and Sheetal very kindly hosted a group of my TFI students at the Ashram for a fun-filled morning of laughter Yoga, art, dance and some Paav Bhaji! :) Post-my Teach for India Fellowship, we hosted a SpiriTED talk by Shaheen Mistri--the founder CEO of the movement.
The AwaKin Circles helped further deepen my own daily Vipassana practice. It also nurtured beautiful community connections and seva initiatives across the Pune city that I started enjoying being part of--Meals on Wheels & Seva Cafe for example. Before I knew it, my engagement with the Ashram community extended much beyond the weekly AwaKins.
Over the years, I was blessed to be part of many beautiful seva events, co-creative activities, learning journeys, retreats and satsangs through the Urban Ashram. (some pictures can be found here). One of my most fond memories from the time I spent at the Ashram is when Sheetal bhai and I went on a walking pilgrimage with the Warkaris of Maharashtra. What a truly humbling experience that was!
Looking back now, I can see how many of the seeds I may had been carrying deep within me found a very fertile, nurturing soil at the Ashram. Be it the values of gift, seva, silence, the regard for mystic traditions, my quest to reconnect with ancient wisdom practices such as Yoga and Ayurveda, the love for art, music, nature, community...it all began to slowly come to life with the safe, gentle holding that the Ashram offered to my rather lost young pilgrim heart. I can now really appreciate how the Ashram helped prepare the ground for my later engagement with the Krishnamurti Schools as an environmental educator and now as a counselor & a mindfulness trainer.
For a young person, it may not seem very 'cool' to be going to an 'Ashram'--however the Urban Ashram really offered a new narrative--it was a beautiful convergence of spirituality and joyful living within the modern context, the young and elderly growing together in wisdom. Having been working closely with teenagers and young adults past few years, I cannot highlight enough the immense value and importance of a safe, nurturing community space for a young heart-and mind to feel a sense of belonging, to feel supported, to be loved & cared for, to engage with community champions and meet adults who they can look up to for inspiration & direction, to be motivated with an energizing vision, to gain exposure to innate goodness, beauty and creativity of human spirit and to find their unique purpose and role in this complex world. The Urban Ashram was this space for me and I am so deeply grateful for that.
What is noteworthy is also how the Ashram was this special inclusive space--transcending many of the socio-economic barriers within the urban setting. I remember one rickshaw uncle who used to attend the AwaKin evenings with us and the stories he would share with such delight--everyone was received with so much love and dignity.
While I mostly live a life of a wandering pilgrim--I have carried the Ashram along with me wherever I travel--be it the launch of the AwaKin circles in Bhutan or Udaipur, joining the AwaKin circles in Boston and Santa Clara and connecting with many of the Ashram friends around the world--the Banyan Tree in the form of the Urban Ashram has spread its branches and found roots in my heart wherever I go.
Even as the earlier physical form of the Urban Ashram has been dissolved, I would say that it has metamorphosed into a more subtle, deeper, an ever expansive space within each heart that it touched. The ripples continue to spread wide and deep far beyond its physical location. I personally feel more connected that ever before to the values and practices which were lit and inspired during my time at the Ashram. It also makes me feel more responsible to contribute to the co-creative nurturing of more such spaces within my circle of influence. The Covid-19 lockdown at my village home, for example, has turned into a wonderful opportunity for bonding with my family through daily circles of silence, reflection and sharing.
It was beautiful to be able to reconnect with Khushmita didi and Sheetal bhai in Auroville last year and to co-host a few listening circles and a Seva Cafe through the Swadharma program. The potential for heart-based, soul-nurturing collaborative endeavors within the network of Urban Ashram community is immense indeed. I am quite encouraged by the Mindfulness-Based Listening Circles we are hosting in response to Covid-19 lockdown--in collaboration with Vidhi, Pratyush and Lahar--some amazing friends I had made through the Urban Ashram!
As the entire humanity goes through immense churning, having been faced with a series of crisis worldwide, we need every heart, every home, every village, every community to become an Ashram, a light unto itself! The Urban Ashram has been an early pioneer and may it continue to inspire many more such nurturing community spaces.
My deepest gratitude to Sheetal bhai, Khush didi, Karoona aunty and Neelkanth Uncle, Atul bhai and many beautiful souls who held and nurtured the Urban Ashram space with so much love and care. May we continue to rise together and contribute to the great awakening unfolding across the globe.
Lokah Samastha Sukhino Bhavantu!